Political Prisoner Freed From Burmese Prison After Nearly 20 Years

Burma's longest-serving political prisoner, who was freed Tuesday after 19 years behind bars, vows to continue pressing for freedom from the junta's 46 years of military rule.

Win Tin, 78, a journalist-turned-activist who helped found Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party in 1988, was one of at least seven political prisoners released, according to Amnesty International. There are still an estimated 2,100 political prisoners held in Burma, the rights group said.

Win Tin said he would continue to wear his prison blues as a sign of protest against the junta, which has since renamed the nation Myanmar, and he vowed to keep pressing for more freedom.

A longtime journalist and poet, while in prison Win Tin wrote poems on the walls of his cell with ink made of brick powder and water, according to supporters who visited him.

"I have to continue with my unfinished task of trying to achieve democracy in Burma," Win Tin said from a friend's home in Rangoon after being released from the notorious Insein Prison. He appeared alert and healthy despite recent reports that he is ill.

Asked how it felt to be free, Win Tin replied, "I will be happy only when all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi are released."

In the past, Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, called Win Tin "a man of courage and integrity" and said he was instrumental in Burma's democracy movement.

The amnesty came just days ahead of the one-year anniversary of the military junta's brutal crackdown on protests led by Buddhist monks. The U.N. estimated at least 31 people were killed when the army fired on peaceful protesters in the Sept. 26-27, 2007, crackdown, sparking global outrage.

Analysts suspect the secretive military junta timed the release as an attempt to fend off international criticism during the anniversary.

"I am certain that it is part of a political strategy," said Josef Silverstein, a retired professor from Rutgers University in New Jersey and a Burma expert. "The military did not come off well in attacking the monks last year and that attack has not been forgotten."

The junta "is determined to get the world to forget and just take note of the military's 'favorable' action," he added.

The mass amnesty granted to 9,002 prisoners around the country was believed to be one of the largest the junta has ever granted. State-controlled media said it was for prisoners who exhibited good "moral behavior."

Analysts say the vast majority of the prisoners were likely petty criminals. The government often grants amnesty to people convicted of low-level crimes to mark important national days.

Win Tin served as a close aide to Suu Kyi, who is currently under house arrest, and helped found her National League for Democracy opposition party in 1988. Two years later, the party won a landslide victory that the junta refused to acknowledge. Instead, the generals stepped up arrests and repression of dissidents.

Suu Kyi has spent more than 12 of the past 19 years in detention, mostly under house arrest.

Win Tin was arrested on July 4, 1989, during a crackdown on opposition politicians. Authorities initially kept him without food while interrogating him about his role in the democracy movement, Suu Kyi wrote in 1996 in the Mainichi Daily News, a Japanese newspaper.

"It appeared that the interrogators wished to force him to admit that he was my adviser on political tactics, in other words, that he was my puppet master," she wrote. "A man of courage and integrity, U Win Tin would not be intimidated into making false confessions."

Tried in a military court, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison for allegedly being a member of the banned Communist Party of Myanmar.

He was most recently sentenced in March 1996 to an additional seven years' imprisonment for writing to the United Nations about prison conditions and for writing and circulating anti-government pamphlets in prison.

Human rights groups rejoiced at news of Win Tin's release.

"We are immensely relieved that he has finally been freed," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. "It is unacceptable that he was made to serve 19 years in prison for peacefully advocating democracy but today his release is an historic moment."

Amnesty International called the release "the best news to come out of Myanmar in a long time," but said the seven political prisoners "don't even represent one percent of the political prisoners there. There are many, many more who should also be released."

The United Nations and international rights groups had long called for Win Tin's release and referred to him as Burma's longest-serving political prisoner.

While incarcerated, Win Tin had two heart attacks, a hernia operation and suffered from high blood pressure, diabetes and spinal inflammation, according to international media groups.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.